Meet the Staff: Kate Moses
By Adam Gordon, SR Spring 2016 Editorial Assistant
Kate Moses is an Assistant Professor in the Writing Arts Program at SUNY Plattsburgh and an Editor of the Saranac Review. She is the author of an internationally acclaimed novel, Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath, published in fifteen languages and twenty countries, and Cakewalk: A Memoir, and is the coeditor of two bestselling anthologies of essays on motherhood. Recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Janet Heidinger Kafka Award, a Prix des Lectrices de Elle, and an American Book Award, she has been a fellow at the Djerassi Foundation and the McDowell Colony.
How do you balance being an editor and professor and still have time to read and write books?
It takes a great deal of effort. Each task works a different side of my brain. Editing is mostly left-brain; writing is right-brain; and teaching requires both sides. I section time when it comes to focusing. It took me two years of teaching at SUNY Plattsburgh to figure out how to manage my time. I teach or prepare classes four days a week and I write on the weekends. I have a personal room in my house where I write. As for reading, I spend the school year reading school-related materials and things for pleasure over the summer. Reading is like gasoline. You need fuel in order to keep your writing moving.
How long did it take for you to get your writing published?
While I was in college, I had a few stories published in my college journal. When I was twenty-four years old, I got my first paycheck for my first story published in a literary contest. Shortly after, I was recognized in a supermarket. Then I realized I wasn’t ready to published, I wasn’t developed enough as a writer. I didn’t try to publish any fiction for 12 years, though I still wrote, and I published non-fiction. When I was ready, I showed my first novel, Wintering, to my agent and it was published when I was forty
How much time do you put into each piece you work on?
Wintering took me 3 years once I knew what I was writing about, but it really took 6 years. The research took a lot of time, but the writing was actually fast. The novel I am working on now is a different experience. I have rewritten it five times and it took me years to figure out everything, from the characters to the point of view I wanted it to be.
What advice would you give beginners on what you should do to make a piece good?
All writing starts as a first draft. Don’t censor anything and let your imagination take over. Then, put it away for about a week and figure out what you’re really writing about. See what you can keep or change to make your vision come across. Developing writers should ask, “Why am I writing about this?” Vivian Gornick says that in every work of literature there is a situation and a story. The situation is on the surface (who, what, when, where). The story is more personal, it’s what you’re really trying to say, which is why you should ask the question, why this? And you have to care deeply about what you’re writing. It has to matter to you or it won’t matter to anyone else. Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
Which one of your fictional pieces was your favorite? Why? What did you do to make it good?
My first novel, Wintering, felt like I wasn’t writing it but that it was coming through me. I was just the conduit. It’s about the poet Sylvia Plath, who was writing the poems that would make her famous when she killed herself at thirty years old because she had mental illnesses and suffered emotionally from the collapse of her marriage. I don’t think will ever have anything more rewarding that the experience of writing that first novel. It was an irreplaceable experience.
Before you start writing, do you usually plan everything out in advance? How do you know when your story is ready to reach paper?
With nonfiction, I don’t know what I will say until I say it. As for fiction, most of my writing happens before I touch the keyboard. I can’t sit down with an empty mind. I need a sense of an image, or a scene or a line. I tend to know what will go on before I sit down to write. The planning process consists of me thinking about the characters and their contexts. I have to get inside their heads. See the scene, both in my mind and by going on research trips to the locations in my stories.
What made you want to work for the Saranac Review?
I started as an editor of books, magazines, and online, which I continued for many years. I was excited to learn how dedicated Plattsburgh’s faculty was to their journal. I was excited for ZPlatt as well because the students are able to learn the stuff I didn’t know as a college student. I love to offer a place to read many writers’ voices.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Often from art -- visual, music, literary. By seeking out the beauty in the world. Being able to make people’s lives better. I just heard a Ted Talk, “What is beauty?” It got me thinking about what I think is beautiful, and it doesn’t really compare to the stereotypical beauty. It’s whatever captivates my imagination. I love stories, and I see stories in art.
What have you been up to? I hear you are in the middle of two books; would you like to talk about it?
I am finishing a novel, The Fayum Potraits, which I have been working on since 2004. It has two stories. A young Egyptian mother with a portrait painted two thousand years ago, and a woman who sees the painting in a book and goes to Egypt to see it and try to find out her story. I spent a lot of time researching in Egypt to make this story live up to the art it was inspired by. Next, I am writing about Emily Dickinson and how she became a poet in part because of her relationship with her dog. I will write about the human-dog relationship and theories of evolution in my book. I started researching it four years ago. That was mostly book research, and I’ve finally started the first phase of writing.
This is Kate Moses novel’s Fayum, or mummy, portraits of a mother and child, circa 70 A.D. The mother was identified with a red ribbon tied around her mummy inscribed in Greek: "Demos, age 24, I will never forget you."